Mastery: The Life of Lugh

Part 1

In my first article I spoke of inspiration, the need for it, the want of it, from an Irish perspective, and in particular I wanted the reader to draw inspiration from Irelands mythical and historic past. I will, if you permit me, continue along this path of exploration for the next few articles, where we will come into contact with a whole range of characters from Irelands rich tapestry of myth, saga, legend, folklore and history. I hope to communicate to you not only the depth and beauty of these characters, each symbolising different aspects and sides to both the ancient and modern Irish psyche, but also to instil a sense of belonging to, and reverence for, the Gaelic vision of life. As Pádraig Pearse said in his famous work The Murder Machine, “All the problems with which we strive (I mean all the really important problems), were long ago solved by our ancestors, only their solutions have been forgotten”.

The first character we will meet as part of this series will be Lugh Lamhfáda (of the long arm). Lugh is one of the principal deities of the Gaelic pantheon of gods and is a central figure in Irish mythology. He is even mentioned, (along with quite a few other Irish gods) in the mythologies of various other nations, all be it with different, though similar names. In Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, he is called Lugh, in Wales he is known as Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and in ancient Gaul – Lugus. He was seen as the Celtic equivalent to Mercury by Julius Caesar who opined that the Gaulish Mercury was the principal deity of the region. Lugo, in Galicia, is reportedly named after this god, as well as other sites in northern Spain and of course, gives his name to the wee county of Louth. This means that his following was not only extensive throughout North Western Europe, but would also seem to mean that it is quite ancient indeed. Not much is known of the god that Caesar mentioned, so it seems safe to say that his worship was most long lasting in Ireland, due to the multitude of stories and mentions that he has within the mythological literature of this country, as well as the relatively isolated position of the island at that time. Sometimes seen as a trickster, or as a god of storms, or up until quite recently, a god of light, Lugh is best known as being the master of all arts, crafts, and warfare, earning him the name Ildánach, and so deservedly takes his place as one of the top gods of the Gaelic polytheistic pantheon.

What struck me about Lugh when I first read about him, was his ability. He could adapt and use his skills to make anything, he took anyone on and won. This was the true meaning of the word mastery, and he excelled at it all. It was this element, Mastery, that intrigued me the most, and peaked my interest. In “The Way of Men”, author Jack Donovan outlines and explores the idea of modern and ancient masculinity, the way it has changed over time, and how to re-connect with the basic concepts of it in order to help men preserve and build upon themselves to take on the modern world and succeed in their lives. As part of this effort to build upon oneself, the author introduces the concept of “Tactical Virtues”. Mastery, is one of these “Tactical Virtues”, and it pertains to a persons place in a group dependant on whether or not the individual contains a skillset that is valuable to that group, “Mastery is a mans desire and ability to cultivate and demonstrate proficiency and expertise in techniques that aid in the exertion of will over himself, over nature, over women, and over other men”. Lugh, had this ability in spades, and his life of mastery eventually led him to greatness and legend, when upon Nuada’s death, he assumed the role of High king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Lugh was born into a tumultuous time, a period in Irish mythology when the Fomorians, (another mythical race of beings who lived in the north western islands), subjugated and tyrannised the Dé Danann population, robbing, killing, incurring taxes and tributes, kidnapping and forcing into slavery the adults and children alike. This was not a good time to be one of the people of Danu. But Lugh’s story is one ultimately of triumph and victory, where through his adaptability, mastery and bravery, he broke the shackles of tyranny and oppression, and led his people to freedom. His is a story that should inspire all Irish people, for it is the story of the Irish nation itself.

The Birth of Lugh

Our story begins on the windswept, sea sprayed cliffs of Tory island, in Balor’s Tower. Balor, the king of the Fomorians, also known as Balor of the Evil Eye, and his wife Ceithlenn had an only daughter Ethlinn, whom, because of a premonition a druid had told him when he was young, Balor had locked in a separate tower. This premonition from the druid, foretold that Balor would meet his demise at the hands of his own grandson, so, upon learning this had had his daughter locked away with 12 women servants, who were ordered never to even speak of men. Ethlinn was brought up in this tower, and grew up to be very beautiful. It is said that she sometimes saw men through the windows of the tower, while in their currachs or ships, but when she asked her servants who or what they were, she would receive no answer from them. But, eventually, she began to see a man in her dreams. Balor was not bothered by this, as by his reckoning, the tower was impenetrable and no-one could sneak in unannounced at any time as Ethlinn was always protected by her 12 servants. Balor continued his tyranny and subjugation of the Tuatha de Danann unhindered, “with war and robbery as he was used, seizing every ship that passed by, and sometimes going over to Ireland to do destruction there”.

At this time though there were 3 brothers of the Tuatha De living in a place called Druim na Téine, Samthainn, Goibníu, and Cían. Cían just so happened to possess one of the finest cows in all Ireland, Glás Gaibhnenn, whos milk, reportedly, never failed. Balor eyed this cow with great envy and hatched a plan to steal her. Shapeshifting himself into a young boy, Balor was able to trick Samhthain into giving him the cow while Cian was away. When Cian learned of this, he tried hard to get the cow back, and ended up seeking the service of Bírog, a woman druid for help. Bírog, using her powers of sorcery, conjured up a gust of wind, and on this they made their way to Balors tower, where, after tricking the women servants, Cían was able to talk to Ethlinn. Upon her first meeting with Cían, Ethlinn knew that this was the man she had dreamed of and instantly fell in love with him, and lay with him, but after a while he was taken away from her, again by a gust of wind, back to Ireland.

When the time came, Ethlinn gave birth to a son. When Balor found out about this he sent his men to the tower to dispose of the child, whom they tossed into the sea. The child was saved by Bírog, who brought him to his father Cían, who in turn fostered him out, as this was the normal custom. Lugh was then fostered to Taillte of the great plain, and to the sea god, Mannanán mac lír. It was under their tutelage, that Lugh obtained mastery of his varied skills.

The Ildánach

While still a young man, having mastered and honed his skills, he decided to travel to Tara, to join with his fathers people. At the time of his arrival, the king Nuada, was in the middle of a great feast. At the gates of the great fort he came across soldiers guarding the entrance. The soldiers enquired who he was and Lugh told them. They then insisted on knowing his capabilities “for no one without an art comes into Teamhair”. Lugh then began to list his varied skills one by one, only to be told by the soldiers that they already had someone inside who had this particular skill. Carpenter, Smith, Champion, Harper, Poet, Magician, Physician, Cup-bearer, Brassworker. After going through his whole list to the soldiers, Lugh said “Go and ask the king if he has any one man that can do all these things, and if he has, I will not ask to enter Teamhair”. King Nuada was informed of this, and in reply, sent out his chess board and several chess players to contest Lugh. After beating them all, Lugh was granted entry to the kings feast, whereupon Ogma, the kings champion, lifted a heavy flagstone from the floor and threw it outside to challenge Lugh to a feat of strength. Lugh took the bait, and easily picked it back up and hurled it back into the middle of the kings house. He then took hold of a harp, and played with such beauty, that he had the kings court hurling with laughter, crying from sadness, and finally put them to sleep with a lullaby. When Nuada saw all these things that Lugh could do, he doubted him no longer and in fact, gave Lugh the throne of Tara for thirteen days so that all could listen to his advice, and to seek his help to organise the freedom of the Tuatha De from the Fomorians. It was after this first meeting, that he was given the title of “Ildánach”, which means master of all arts.

After this period on the throne, Lugh decided to retreat to a quiet place free from Fomorian spies, and invited Nuada, Dagda, Ogma, Goibníu and Díancecht to accompany him. They stayed in this place a full year, at the end of which, they agreed to go their separate ways for a term of 3 years, to ready themselves for the coming fight and meet again at the end of this period, on the Hill of Úisneach. Lugh spent this time with his friends, the sons of the sea god Manannán training, sparring, practicing for the coming battle and gathering up as many of his friends as he could to accompany him.

First Blood

At the decided time, Nuada and the others were gathered at the Hill of Úisneach. Suddenly there appeared on the horizon, armed troops coming to meet them. Lugh had arrived as promised, along with the riders of the Sidhe, and his foster-brothers the sons of Manannan, and they were welcomed and joined by Nuada and the rest of the Tuatha De Dannan. Before long, messengers of the Fomorians came along to exact tribute and taxes from the people. Nuada seemed to have a slight change of heart as he saw them draw nearer to them, and started to rise from his position in an act of submission. Lugh reprimanded him for this display, and set off to attack the messengers. Killing all but nine of them, Lugh then sent back the survivors to their own men who recounted the whole story to them. Balor, on hearing the story, called a council of his own, to plan an invasion of Ireland and force subjugation back onto the rebellious men of Dea.

It was at this time that Bres, deposed of his high kingship by Nuada after a reign of tyranny and cruelty, arrived to seek help from the Fomorians. Balor, appointing Bres as the head of his army, made ready his ships and provisions. Following them to the harbour to see them off Balor cried to Bres, “Give battle to that Ildánach,and strike off his head, and tie that island that is called Ireland to the back of your ships, and let the destroying water take its place, and put it on the north side of Lochlann, and not one of the Men of Dea will follow it there to the end of life and time”. The ships then set off for the mainland.

Upon arrival on the mainland, Bres laid waste to the whole province of Connaught. Word was sent to Lugh and Nuada of this atrocity from the king of Connaught Bodb Dearg, who asked for assistance to fight off the Fomorian invaders. Lugh then set off to meet the marauders.

The Death of Cían

As he was travelling, Lugh came across his father Cían, and his fathers brothers, who enquired to him as to what he was doing. Lugh informed them of the situation, and to help out, his father and uncles decided to gather the riders of the Sidhe from all over Ireland so that they may follow Lugh to battle. His uncles both travelled southward, leaving Cían alone to travel northwards. He had not gone a long way, when he came across the three brothers Brian, Iuchar, and Iacharba, sons of Tuireann and Ogma. Now, there was always animosity, anger, and hatred between the sons of Tuireann and Cían and his kin, and whenever they met each other, bloodshed was surely to happen.

Upon seeing that he was in a perilous situation, Cían turned himself into a pig and began nosing the ground with a herd nearby to escape detection. But Brian, having seen what was done, changed his two brothers to hounds so that they could identify and kill the enchanted pig. Once identified, the enchanted pig made for a nearby wood, but Brian cast his spear and put it through the pigs body. Cían, mortally wounded, begged to change himself into his true form. Brian allowed this, only to find that Cían had tricked him and was now liable for killing a man and not a pig. Angered by this trickery, they then finished Cían off by stoning him to death, taunting him as the boulders smashed his bones to dust.

The three brothers, fearful now, as they knew Cían was the father of Lugh, and that Lugh would surely go after them once he had learned of his fathers demise, attempted to bury Cíans corpse. But each time they tried to bury him, the ground spat him back out, as if the Earth wished to remove itself from the act. Six times they tried, and six times he was spat out. On the seventh attempt though, they finally achieved their goal. Cían, father of Lugh, was now entombed permanently in the blood-soaked soil.

This action (understandably) would not bode well for the sons of Tuireann…

End of Part 1

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